Is Listening a Dying Art?

posted by Darren Mitchell February 5, 2015 0 comments


On the first Sunday of every month, our family goes out for breakfast, before walking around the local Farmer’s Market – a local tradition that we have followed for the last 10 years. Last Sunday as we were eating breakfast, 2 couples were seated on a table next to us, engaged in what many people would consider to be conversation – what was interesting though was that 2 of the people at the table were busy on their smart devices, whilst the other 2 people were speaking. As we were so close to the table, we could not help but overhear the conversation. The 2 people not on their smart devices found themselves repeating their comments a number of times, because the other 2 were so fixated on their devices. And from the tone of the comments, it was noticeable that the levels of frustration amongst the group was increasing quickly. Witnessing this prompted me to ask my wife a question “Is Listening a Dying Art?” Here were 2 couples, out for breakfast on a Sunday morning, an opportunity to have a pleasant and engaging conversation, and yet 2 of them appeared to be more interested in what was appearing on their smart device.

This got me thinking and reflecting on my experiences and observations around listening, and how the art of listening is often taken for granted. For example, how many times do you meet somebody for the first time, and within a minute or two (and sometimes, even seconds!), you completely forget the person’s name? This has happened to me numerous times, and quite frankly, it can be rather embarrassing and often quite rude. Or how often do you find yourself engaged in a conversation, and you ask what you consider to be an insightful question, only to have the other person respond with “I just told you that”. I’ve experienced that as well. I was ‘hearing’ the conversation, but I was not listening, and there is a massive difference.

By contrast, you may have experienced an interaction with someone where you enjoyed a fantastic and thought provoking conversation, where you did the majority of the talking, the person you were speaking with remained interested in the conversation and continued to ask you questions, and you walked away with the impression ‘gee, that person was terrific and interesting to speak with’. Have you ever experienced that? You may have noticed that when engaged in the conversation, everything around you seemed to disappear, particularly if you were in a crowded room. You may have not found out anything about the person because you did all of the talking, but your impression of that person was that they are interesting. What they demonstrated was the art of listening.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to establish, develop and maintain, an empowering and sustainable environment so that our people can develop and become successful. And one of the most profound pillars to creating that environment is the art of listening. It is an old cliche, but is so true – we each have 2 ears and 1 mouth, and so we should use them in that ratio. And as a leader, why is this so important? Well, demonstrating the art of listening builds your credibility with your people, it can build trust amongst your people and the level of respect your people have for you can significantly increase. And when you operate from a position of deep integrity, you have built an exceptionally strong platform for the environment to thrive.

So how can we, as leaders, prevent the art of listening from dying? Here are some principles to consider and explore :

• Be present – this principle sounds very easy, and yet, it is often one of the most difficult to consistently implement. When you are with your people, be 100% there, in the moment, just for them. This means not looking at your smart phone and not looking around the room. Look them in the eyes, and maintain eye contact.

• Clear your mind – there is nothing worse than being in a conversation with someone where you know that they are simply waiting for you to finish speaking so they can speak. Remember, it is not about you – clear your mind and be okay with the concept of not knowing where the conversation may go.

• Focus your entire attention on the other person – this is a big one, and will have an empowering impact on the other person when you can do this well. Acknowledge them. It is not about you.

• Be insatiably curious and empathetic – one of the most effective ways to do this is through asking relevant and high quality questions. Questions such as “that is interesting, can you tell me more?” will often prompt the person to delve deeper, and if you combine this with confirming back to the person what they have just shared with you, you will make a profound impact.

• Use all of your senses – when listening to your people, not only listen to the words they are sharing, also notice their physiology, their breathing rate, is their skin tone changing, are they fidgeting? Are they maintaining eye contact with you? Also listen intently to what they are not saying, as this can often reveal more than what they actually do say.

• Listen to their voice tone – rather than just listening to the words (and what they are not saying), also listen to their tone of voice. Are they speaking in a monotone, are they speaking with a questioning tonality where, at the end of the sentence, their voice appears to increase in frequency. Or are they speaking with a command tonality where the frequency goes down at the end of the sentence. The tone of a person’s voice will often ‘overpower’ the words that are spoken. As the old saying goes “The tone of your voice is so loud that I cannot hear the words you are speaking”.

• Be patient – this principle is a massive one, and unfortunately one where many leaders struggle, particularly in the fast paced instant gratification world we live in. However, if you can demonstrate patience with your people, and combined with the principles articulated above, you will go a very long way to ensuring that the art of listening continues to live on.

I would like to think that listening is not a dying art, and that there is hope that it can continue to live on for generations to come – I do believe however, it is an art that requires constant practice, and through that practice, we all have the opportunity to reach ‘listening mastery’. As a very wise mentor shared with me years ago – he said “Darren, people may not always remember what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel”. Become a Master Listener!!

To your leadership success.


Thank you for taking the time to read this post – I greatly appreciate it, and welcome comments and feedback. Please feel free to comment below, to follow me on LinkedIn, or to connect via Twitter or Facebook.

About : Darren is an Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant, Trainer, Facilitator, Speaker. A  passionate and driven individual specialising in personal development, strategic planning, coaching for advocacy & enhanced performance, situational and servant based leadership, executive coaching of people leaders, emerging leaders and ‘high potential’ individual contributors within the Enterprise & Government market, personal change management, and strategic workshop facilitation & training.

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